No mountain divides actor and character in ‘Ivy Rowe’

Lyn May
Special to The Black Mountain News

Actor Barbara Bates Smith has portrayed Ivy Rowe for so long that she jokes, “Everyone kept teasing me about wanting to become Ivy Rowe. I think in some respect that might have been true.”

Smith reprises her oft-repeated performance, a one-woman adaptation of Lee Smith's book “Fair and Tender Ladies,” on June 13 at White Horse Black Mountain in Black Mountain.

Published in 1988, the novel “Fair and Tender Ladies” tells the story of feisty Ivy Rowe through letters Rowe has written to various recipients. Author Lee Smith’s story of Rowe’s life in the mountains challenges modern depictions of female sexuality and regional Appalachia stereotypes, according to reviews.

An Alabama native now living in Clyde, Barbara Bates Smith has performed “Ivy Rowe” several times a week in theaters in New York City. “I stopped counting after 700” performances, she quipped.

After extensive touring and her husband’s transition from practicing medicine to entering the ministry, the couple decided to move to Haywood County.

“I really moved here because of that book,” Barbara Bates Smith said. She had fallen in love with the novel and had already met Lee Smith. The author was involved in the theatrical production from the very beginning, Barbara Bates Smith said. But assuming the role of Ivy Rowe wasn’t hard. The actor was actually consumed by it.

Ivy Rowe “took on a life of her own, and I followed her,” Smith said. An “earthy” character, Rowe grounded Smith, she said. Rowe also lifted her up because she “has such a great spirit,” Smith said.

The transition from Barbara Bates Smith to Ivy Rowe was an organic experience that Smith is at a loss to describe. When she is not on stage being Rowe, she wishes she were, she said. She thrives on the opportunity to tell the story of Ivy Rowe.

“She is such a rich character,” Smith said.

She used to accompany her performances with a musical soundtrack. But while playing music 12 years ago, she met musician Jeff Sebens. She phased him into the act and now Sebens is her show musician and road manager.

In addition to a plethora of “Ivy Rowe” performances, Smith has held several other leading roles in productions of “Talking Pictures,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” She has also led a number of workshops in “Our Own Stories,” a series in which people learn how to use monologue to tell their personal stories. Gloria Steinem has participated.

Becoming Ivy Rowe

What: “Ivy Rowe”

When: 8 p.m. June 13

Where: White Horse Black Mountain

Cost: $12 advance, $15 door